Cutthroat woes

Columnist Rob Brown continues his piece on what might be happening to trout in the area

Decades ago now, Dave Wiffen decided to refurbish the decaying shack built by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that stood on the bank overlooking the section of the upper Lakelse River known to fishers as The Flats. To accomplish this task, Dave dragged his tools and lumber over the snow by sled.

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I began checking on Dave’s progress regularly over the winter, without knowing who was doing the building. I’m sure we were the only people on the river that winter, and should have crossed paths, yet, surprisingly, we never did. It was only when Finlay mentioned that his son-in-law was fixing up the shack, that I learned Dave was responsible.

Dave did an excellent job, turning the sagging shack into a comfortable cabin complete with a couple of bunk beds and window. Soon after the work was done, I came by to inspect Dave’s handiwork. He had a table in the centre of the building. A notebook was on it. Dave, or possibly his wife, Mary, had penned a short welcome note on the cover that encouraged people to make use of the cabin, and leave it as they found it. I opened the book. It had only one entry at that point, a note from a fellow who wrote that he was prompted to return to the Lakelse River by fond remembrances of the fishing he’d had during the time he was working on the crew that built the rail spur from Terrace to Kitimat.

You can’t imagine the number of trout back then, he wrote.

When I read this I was puzzled. The trout fishing I’d been having seemed excellent to me.  Were the cutthroat and char actually even more abundant when the track was being laid? I found the claim hard to accept then. Now I believe it probably was the case, and that, with a few fluctuations, the trout populations have been in steady decline for a number of years.

When I read the railwayman’s note, the Thunderbird section of the watershed hadn’t been logged. With a foundation of marine clay, the whole area should never have seen a saw. The effect of the timber extraction was to destabilize Mink Creek and the myriad small creeks feeding it. The importance of those small streams to cutthroat trout is well known. The defoliation of those vital arteries and subsequent siltation, must have had a deleterious effect on Lakelse cutthroat.

Long before Thunderbird was wrecked, the lower river was savaged by Columbia Cellulose. Gene Llewellyn and John Hipp told me of the rough and tumble way that the Old Lakelse Main was built with almost no regard for the fisheries values in the many ecologically important creeks that feed the Lakelse River from the South. White Creek was heavily utilized by cutthroat. Coldwater Creek is another important tributary that should have remained in its pristine state. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the logging in the Williams Creek drainage and the damage done to Skully Creek didn’t have some effect of the sea run cutthroat population.

The foreshore habitat on Lakelse Lake, the littoral zone, is critical to all fish. As a result of the development of lakeshore property by those who prefer lawns and sandy beaches over marshland, large chunks of rich habitat has disappeared.

On the east side of the lake, the hot springs development compromised a vast tract of vital fish habitat.

Habitat loss is not the only obstacle facing the cutthroat of the Lakelse watershed. At a recent conference held under the auspices of the BC Lakes Stewardship Society and co-hosted by the Lakelse Watershed Stewards Society, Dr. Daniel Selbie, an eminent limnologist working for the Department of Fisheries, gave a fascinating, if troubling, talk on the effect of water quality on food webs and ecological relationships in lakes. 

Somehow I’d acquired the idea that acid rain was not a serious threat in the acidic rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. Dr. Selbie disabused me of this misguided notion. According to him, the science shows that our area is highly sensitive to acid deposition, the same eerie phenomenon that ruined so many streams on the East coast.

If you stand at the lookout atop Kalum Hill and gaze out over the valley on a clear day, you can see the airborne effluent from Kitimat drifting north then west down the Lakelse River Valley. This has been going on for 60 years with government permission.

Given that the fish populations are a public resource, are irreplaceable (and therefore invaluable), you would think that the possible negative effects of this killer smog on fish would receive intensive study and on-going monitoring. It hasn’t.

Now the self serving, corporate worshipping toadies in our provincial government have given Rio Tinto Alcan permission to increase the amount of killer smog in our air shed, not caring apparently for the effect of this on human health, and probably completely ignorant of the long term effect these airborne toxins have had on our fish populations, notably the vulnerable Lakesle River cutthroat trout.